WASHINGTON (AP) — The Renoir painting that caused a sensation when it was bought at a flea market for $7 may have been stolen from a museum six decades ago, and an auction house has put its sale on hold.
The planned Saturday auction was canceled Thursday after a reporter for The Washington Post discovered documents in the Baltimore Museum of Art's library showing that the painting was on loan there from 1937 until 1951, when it was stolen.
The Impressionist painting, whose title translates as "Landscape on the Banks of the Seine," was purchased two years ago at a West Virginia flea market. The buyer, a Virginia woman who has not revealed her name, took it to auction house The Potomack Co. in July, and experts there confirmed it was by the French master Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The frame of the painting includes a "Renoir" plaque.
It had been expected to fetch $75,000 or more at auction.
"Potomack is relieved this came to light in a timely manner as we do not want to sell any item without clear title," Elizabeth Wainstein, the owner of the Alexandria, Va.-based auction house, said in a statement.
Potomack and museum officials have notified the FBI about the theft, and an FBI spokesman said the bureau was investigating.
The documents uncovered by The Post in the museum's library indicated that the painting was part of the collection of Saidie May, a major donor to the BMA. It was reported stolen on Nov. 17, 1951, according to the documents, although there is no known police report and the painting does not appear on a worldwide registry of stolen art.
The reported theft occurred shortly after May's death, and the painting had not yet been formally accepted into the museum's collection, which is why museum officials did not initially realize it had been there, BMA director Doreen Bolger said.
"We were caught by surprise," Bolger said Thursday.
Bolger said she would be happy to show the painting again if it is ultimately returned to the museum.
"As this unfolds, we'll find out more about the ownership of the painting," she said. "If the painting is ours, we would be pleased to have it on view."
Associated Press writer Brett Zongker contributed to this report.
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Information from: The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com